Fitting in – or Not

People live dissonant lives. And consonant lives.

I have no problem living a dissonant life – having my own personal feelings at odds with those around or at odds with authority – be it the government or be it Judaism. I personally experience little apoplexy when confronted with something bewildering in Judaism. Chock it up to another human limitation. I think one way – Judaism thinks a different. Fine.

But for some, dissonance is a push out the door. The right wing policies of the government, for some, create so much dissonance that they feel sick. They either need to get out of here or else end up walking around feeling as if they have sold their souls.

What do we do when confronted with something that is dissonant? This is the challenge of the modern Jewish world. If we believe in something and Judaism says something else, causing dissonance in our lives, do we beat it out the door, never to return?

This has been the attitude of the reformers. I don’t mean just reform Judaism, but of those who would rather reform than be dissonant. The process of adjusting Judaism has been the story of Jewish intellectual history of the past 200 years. The hot button issues have been many including the understanding of work on Shabbat, the notion of the Jewish people versus universalism, the differences between men and women in ritual, and most recently homosexuality – amongst many other issues.

The massive exodus of Jews from orthodox synagogues over the past 100 years was, at some level, the desire for consonance. I need to have a Judaism that fits what I believe.

What I find fascinating is the modern day dissonancers – in particular, the phenomenal popularity of Chabad. Chabad is a fascinating social phenomena – the lure of the rebbe, the altruism and selflessness of the chabad shlichim who settle and never leave places that are not so hospitable for religious jews. But that is the Chabadniks. I am more interested in the attendees.

Chabad is a world of dissonance. Very few who attend Chabad believe in all it stands for. And very few observe in the way Chabad would advocate. Yet, if they don’t believe in it, why are they going to a place whose beliefs do not fit with their own beliefs?

Or said differently – why can some make peace with dissonance and why can some not make peace with it? Why are some at home in a place whose beliefs are at odds with their own, while others cannot be at home unless the beliefs match their own?

I think there is religious value in dissonance. I think one way but if the Torah thinks a different way, I step back. That step back has an element of humility. For some, if the Torah says one thing, then their view is irrelevant. Their view becomes the Torah’s view – what can be termed “bitul” – my view is meaningless, it is my own concoction and is of no consequence, so I let it go and the Torah becomes my view.

But I am not referring to that. I am referring to discomfort, to tension, to lack of resolution. I still think my way. The Torah says different. Hmm, what to do? I will adopt the Torah amidst discomfort and amidst turmoil.

So there are consonancers and dissonancers. Those who need consistency, who need their beliefs to be honest and true to themselves and who will not or perhaps cannot countenance inconsistency or even hypocrisy.

And then the dissonancers. Life need not be consistent, need not fit together, can be of tension, like dreams that have pieces that don’t seem to fit – why are those there.

I think the Chabad phenomena is those seeking something and willing to live with the part that doesn’t fit. The something – whether it is belonging, the warmth, the kindness, the mystical meanings, the enthusiastic children’s activities – whatever the something is, it is worth being in a place that doesn’t fit.

I hear those who demand consonance, who demand consistency between private beliefs and their Judaism. I personally don’t need it. I can live a life of tension, of private beliefs that find challenge in some Torah beliefs, but I have little trouble stepping back. And in that step back, there is a degree of satisfaction too.

Not all in life needs to add up.

About the Author
Rabbi Reuven Tradburks is the Director of the Rabbinical Council of America, Israel Region. He served as a congregational rabbi for 23 years, most recently in Toronto, where he was also director of the Beit Din of the Vaad Harabonim for 10 years. He and his wife Joyce made aliya in 2009 and reside in Jerusalem. All views expressed here are the authors and are not the views of any organizational affiliation.